Eyeing a ′third woman′ at the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 02.10.2018
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Eyeing a 'third woman' at the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics recognized revolutions in laser physics. And the lack of a revolution in equality and diversity.

Wow. What a day to be awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics after what just happened at CERN. You would have to be a steely old so-and-so — and totally not cynical — to think that the suspension of "a scientist" for alleged sexist — nigh on woman-hating — remarks would have had no impact on the Nobel committee's decision. 

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics recognized "groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics." And CERN is the world's biggest particle physics laboratory — its business is lasers, basically. And it's a quasi-Laureate, having played a part in the detection of the once-elusive Higgs boson fundamental particle for which François Englert and Peter Higgs got the 2013 prize. So CERN is part of this male-dominated Nobel culture we slavishly celebrate once a year.

Read more: Women in science — more complex than men think

Personally, I fear the Nobel committee is so far removed from reality that it has yet to make the connection. And yet it's in all of our heads: the number of women in the sciences, the number of women who get recognized for their science and the everyday sexism that is just… everywhere. 

Notably, though, this year's physics winners include Dr. Donna Strickland, who now holds the ominous accolade of "The third woman to have ever been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics." That will surely follow her around like a bad smell. At the very least, it will distract from the science for which she, her one-time mentor Gérard Mourou, and Arthur Ashkin, are getting the prize.

Two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie (Getty Images/Keystone)

Two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie would surely scratch her head in disbelief if she could see the statistics on women in the sciences today

I mean, look, we're at it already. And I'm not done yet.

That scientist, the one who was suspended from CERN on Monday, is reported to have said (there's no recording) that physics was "invented and built by men."

Well, that's bunkum.

Marie Curie — a woman, no less — was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and only the fourth person to win the prize in physics in 1903 (although she had to share it with her husband, Pierre, and Antoine Henri Becquerel — but let's for once keep the men's names in parenthesis). Curie also attended the historic 1927 Solvay Conference on Electrons and Photons in Brussels. There she was in her rightful place next to Max Planck, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Like those men did it all on their own.

But back to the Nobel Prize.

The 1903 prize recognized Curie (and the "other two") for their research on "radiation phenomena." Ironically, I believe, that research will have led in some part to the discoveries made by Strickland, Mourou and Ashkin.

Squashed light

So let's get to those discoveries. In reverse alphabetical order, we'll start with Strickland and Mourou, who are recognized for having "paved the way towards the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by mankind."

It was back in the 1980s, when Mourou was Strickland's PhD supervisor. Together they managed to create ultrashort high-intensity laser pulses, and, as a result, invented a technique now known as "chirped pulse amplification," or CPA.

The concept is relatively simple, but it still might help if you think of it like kneading and baking bread.

You take a short laser pulse (a bit of dough), stretch it in time (knead it), amplify it (let it rise), and then squeeze it back together again (knock it back down).

Okay … so the analogy only works if, like me, you bake a lot of bread. But that's essentially the process behind CPA. When you stretch a light pulse in time, its power drops, and that means it can be amplified — made louder — without causing damage to the amplifier (the yeast?). And then, when it's compressed, or squeezed, the light pulse gets stronger and more intense. That's the flavor of it, anyway.

Graphic: Chiruped pulse amplification or CPA, one of the winning inventions of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics (Nobelpreis/The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences/J. Jarnestad)

CPA laser technology has revolutionized eye surgery

Their research formed the basis of Strickland's doctoral thesis. But, more than that, CPA is now used in millions of corrective eye surgeries every year. It is also used in other areas of research in physics, chemistry and medicine.

And this should be really fascinating, especially for those male physicists running experiments at CERN, which, let us not forgot, is headed by Fabiola Gianotti — a woman — because CPA allows such a rapid rate of illumination that it's become possible to describe molecules and atoms during events as well as merely before or after them, as was previously the case.

This could have huge ramifications for medical research.

Laser beam fingers

Meanwhile, in separate research, Arthur Ashkin invented "optical tweezers" that can grab particles, atoms and molecules with "laser beam fingers." That's how the Nobel committee describes it in its science background on the 2018 prize.

What's great about Ashkin's invention is the fact that scientists can grab and hold viruses, bacteria and other miniscule living cells. They can be "examined and manipulated without being damaged."

Read more: European XFEL: First images of the X-ray laser inspire researchers

Ashkin started his research in the mid-1960s, working with an instrument at Bell Laboratories outside New York. As you might expect, he was inspired by Star Trek.

Optical tweezers involve a complex process that uses lasers to nudge and trap small particles as they are attracted to the middle of the beam — like moths to a flame.

But that was just the start, and since then, Ashkin's optical tweezers have been used to study the biological processes of proteins, cells, and DNA.    

Lightyears from equality

At the announcement of the 2018 Physics Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Professor Göran Hansson, the secretary general of The Royal Swedish Academy of the Sciences, said Ashkin wouldn't be giving any interviews as he was too busy working on his latest research. Which, if you were cynical, could be read as Ashkin saying, "I'm a busy man!"

Nobel prize in Physik 2018. Photos on a screen of the winners Arthur Ashkin, Gerard Mourou, and Donna Strickland at the announcement on October 2, 2018 (Reuters/TT News Agency)

Why women always on the outer? Donna Strickland takes pride of place ... far right, alongside Gérard Mourou and Arthur Ashkin

Well, what a stroke of luck they had Dr. Strickland, who found time in her busy schedule to speak to the awaiting journalists via telephone.

Out of respect almost, the questions started with an easy one about the science.

But by the second question, the topic had moved from her "blue sky" discovery to the issue of her being only the third woman to have won the physics prize.

"Is that all? Really," she replied, in a somewhat disingenuous tone, before going on to say, "Well, obviously we need to celebrate women physicists, because we're out there."

Did you hear that, Mr. Suspended CERN scientist?

Infografik Nobelpreise - Wo sind die Frauen? EN

"Hopefully in time," continued Strickland, "it'll start to move forward at a faster rate maybe. I don't know what to say..."

Perhaps Strickland meant to say she was speechless. It was all rather polite and just a little bit awkward, perhaps.

So the line of questioning briefly returned to the science, before it was nudged back to the issue woman in science and equality.

Asked whether he had statistics on the number of female nominees this year, Professor Hansson said he didn't have the statistics to hand. Instead, he referred vaguely to measures that the academy was taking to encourage more nominations of women. Those measures, said Hansson, are "a long process and had no effect for this year's prize." 

Then, to Hansson's right, Professor Olga Botner, a physicist and a member of the Academy's physics committee, piped up with a light-sounding, "May I?" Hansson, being the big man that he is, allowed her to speak with a confident, "Please!"

Good job, as Botner was more forthcoming with figures of a sort.

"The percentage [of female nominees] reflects the number of women in science if you go back 20 or 30 years," she said. "The number has been increasing steadily over the years, but the nominees reflect the percentages as they were two or three decades back."

"Thank you. Good point," said Hansson. And with that, the conversation was closed.

But if that is the end, it smacks of defeatism to me, just to rely on old statistics. Surely it's a scientist's job to keep pushing the envelope, and if the Nobel Prize wants to maintain its relevance, it had better catch up quick.


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